THE UNIVERSITY YEARS
In September, 1981, I left my home town of Warrington, a town on the outskirts of Manchester, to study veterinary medicine at the RVC (Royal Veterinary College), part of the University of London.
The first three years were spent at the campus in Camden Town, the final two years in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire – although we stayed as close to London as possible (in Southgate at the end of the tube line) as we couldn’t face being away from the buzz of the city!
I loved college life – apart from histology. Nothing worse than spending Wednesday afternoon – ALL Wednesday afternoon for a whole year – sat in front of a microscope staring at samples of tissues that all looked the same.
Let’s put it this way, the viva exams in the second year were a particular challenge. Imagine a huge room with ‘stations’ per subject. Each with a lecturer there waiting to interrogate you. The dread of rotating round the room – anatomy, radiology… and histology!
Just before the ‘bell of relief’ rang at the end of my histology disaster – to move onto the next subject – I was asked to identify the animal in the corner of the room. “A cow!” I answered perplexed. To which the reply was “At least you got that one right!”.
Even though I could identify a cow, I preferred small animal medicine.
So, when it was time to choose my speciality in my final year – at the time, the RVC was one of the few veterinary universities to have a final term of specialisation – I chose small animal clinical studies.
With a growing interest in internal medicine, my dissertation was a review of the incidence, diagnosis and treatment of abdominal neoplasia – which I passed with distinction.
I’ve always done better when I love I’m doing!
#1 Problem Solving
The most important learning for me was how to be a vet. How to take a history, perform a clinical examination, compile a mental list of everything that could be causing the symptoms – differential diagnosis – run tests, diagnose, treat, and review.
As a vet I practiced and honed my diagnostic skills – sick patient, worried owners, history, examination, differential diagnosis, diagnostic tests, treatment, and review. Sound familiar?
It’s the classic approach to solving problems and implementing solutions. Substitute dogs and cats for people and brands, and I’m still using the same skills today, more than 25 years later.
#2 Common Things Are Common
With a myriad of possible causes for most conditions, it’s most likely that the most common causes will occur most frequently.
So, if a cat is scratching, it’s most likely to be fleas, and that’s the first thing you check for. That doesn’t mean that you ignore the possibility of it being something else… but your funnel of thinking and diagnostic approach has a starting point.
Your history will evaluate other potential problems, your clinical examination is never anything but thorough, your differential diagnosis is never limited… but if you see evidence of fleas – those little brown specks that turn red on wet absorbent paper – it’s going to be fleas.
In my work today, common things are common. Brands and people all over the world face the same problems every day, and there are tried and tested approaches that simply work.
The trick is to understand the issues, really understand where the problems lie, and develop a treatment programme that will work, and that everyone will understand.
#3 A Little Bit of Blood Makes an Awful Lot of Mess
From memory this nugget was from week 1 – year 1 – and has probably been one of my most important learnings in life.
From our own experiences we know that if we cut our finger it bleeds. And, when it’s your finger, there’s a LOT of blood!.
But standing back, looking at the problem objectively, the damage may be a tiny cut that will be as right as rain in a few days with a quick dressing.
As a vet student we were taught how to stand back, how to objectively view problems but maintain compassion, and to evaluate situations quickly. What may seem like a insurmountable issue to someone (it’s YOUR finger!) can be rationally appraised by an independent third party.
So, combined with my rational approach to problem solving, objectivity is key to the work I do every day.
#4 Cold Cow Syndrome
Taken directly from my 4th year lecture notes: ‘Cold cow syndrome, typically seen in cows in winter’.
I kid you not.
It’s a relatively uncommon disease of unknown origin that occurs towards the end of winter/beginning of spring. It’s characterised by a variety of symptoms, and treatment is based on the symptoms that present.
The message? Keep things simple, don’t over complicate and use jargon. Things are what they are. It’s one of the few diseases of large animals that I can actually remember from college.
Simple messages – especially when they make you smile – are more likely to stick.
I like to keep messages simple. There’s way too much marketing, advertising, and organisational jargon to keep an FBI decoder happy. I believe in directness, honesty and simplicity.